So To Diffuse or Not to Diffuse…Well it’s Hardly a Question at all!

As we move further away from the beautiful and warm light of the sun and closer to the dark days of winter, I’ve been giving more thought to indoor photos and how I could improve on them with artificial lighting.

Of course we all know (I can say “we” since I’ve said it at least once and I know you’re all hanging on to my every word…) that the most important aspect to photography is light.  The colour of it, the direction, angle, and height relative to your subject will all have an effect on the outcome of the image you are creating. The easiest way to manipulate this for yourself is not to. If the mountain can’t come to you, than you must go to the mountain! Choosing your backdrop, subject, or topic based on where the light will be and what type of light is really the easiest way to get great lit photos. Unfortunately, not all of our life takes place at 5pm under the late afternoon/evening sun, or at 7 am just after it rises. Nor does all of our life take place outdoors under that wonderful sun, or pointed towards conveniently placed windows!

Therefore, we must master the art of artificial lighting. Ugh. Everyone has at some point realized a scene was too dark so turned on that handy dandy flash only to blind everyone within a four foot radius. And what did you get for your suffering? A washed out picture where people in the shot look sickly, like a deer caught in the headlights, and at least 10 years older than they really are. On top of this there’s the ever present glare on any glass surface nearby – most of which you hadn’t noticed until you took the photo (that dog-nose-print-stained window for example), and shadows on every surface (nothing says Merry Christmas like creepy ‘slender man’ shadows following your family). This includes faces. A pet peeve of mine – faces that have unflattering shadows. Really, my nose is big enough without the help.

So a little backgrounder on flashes for you- there are essentially two kinds. The built-in (pop-up on a DSLR, or standard on a point and shoot), and external (either a stand alone, or speedlight style that can attach to your DSLR via the hotshoe on top of the pop-up flash). Either way, a flash is a flash is a flash. Its a bright strobe of light that will instantly brighten a scene, BUT will take with it all of the mood/ambiance/drama. So what we want to do is really diffuse the light. We still want to brighten our scene, but we want to be able to manipulate or control that brightness, without retina damage.

A diffuser, or soft box is a tool that does just that. Think of it like a lamp shade. Without the shade, your living room would be quite unenjoyable, full of shadows and uncomfortable brightness. With the lampshade the light is instantly softened providing a glow, an ambiance, and sometimes a little mood. Just like the lampshade in your living room, the diffuser on your flash will soften the light that falls on your subjects as well as the background, spread it out across a larger space (the spread will of course depend on the style of diffuser), and give you a more natural look overall.

Most diffusers (like diffusion caps) aim to bounce the light away from the subject using a small paper or plastic design that fits over your flash. Depending on the style of cap, and whether or not you have an external flash that can rotate it’s head, the diffuser will bounce the flash light off of the white ceiling, a white wall, mirror, reflector, whatever you aim it at. The idea is to bounce it so it falls on the subject instead of hitting them directly. Soft boxes on the other hand still have a mostly direct line of sight as unlike diffusion caps, soft boxes are enclosed typically with black or opaque material on the back, sides, top and bottom. The light is instead filtered through a translucent-opaque screen (often a fabric material). This provides direct lighting that is softened and less intense.

Keep in mind there may be other options as well (and if you do a quick search on Amazon you will find a million and one options that fit into either of these two categories alone) so no telling what other options that might exist!

Now since Santa was so good to me last year in bringing me all my photography treasures, I wonder if he might be so inclined to continue that trend with an external flash and diffuser or soft box this year? In particular a flashgun that can be rotated at the head? Since there’s still a couple months before I find out what might be in my stocking this year, I thought I’d give the DIY approach a go. Thank you Pinterest!

So according to my pinterest research, there are about a gazillion options for making your own diffuser. Give or take a few. You can get as complex or as quick and dirty as you like with this. Not being of the crafty persuasion, I stuck to the quick and dirty.

Essentially I attempted 2 soft-box style diffusers with tissue paper and construction paper respectively, and 2 bounce diffusers out of white paper and cardboard and an aluminum pie plate. Well technically I attempted 3 bounce diffusers if you include my ill-thought out cardboard tube design. sigh.

You see, I had seen this tutorial for using an opaque film canister as a diffuser by cutting a space into it and slipping it over the flash like a cap. Well since I haven’t had a film camera since 2004 I don’t really have any film canisters laying around anymore. But then my eyes caught sight of the empty paper towel tube. Now I realize these are no more alike then my dog and cat, however pregnancy brain being what it is and essentially removing all critical thinking skills I once possessed, I fashioned a completely useless device.

So, with that confession out of the way, here we go onto the useful stuff. I used a white cardboard back drop (one of those science fair boards) and some white construction paper on the table top to provide a consistent backdrop and floor for my model to pose on.

Enter Hilda.

no fdiffNow in this shot, I used no flash, it was taken in my kitchen under the hanging light with my settings as follows: SS 1/40, F4, ISO 800, WB Incandescent.

While my settings varied slightly between this shot and the others, the location remained the same and I used the same portrait lens for all shots. These have no editing, they’re simply for comparison purposes!

Next up I adjusted my camera for a shot with flash.

flashSettings for the rest of the series were: SS 1/40, F4, ISO 100, WB Flash.

Okay so first up in the docket was the tissue paper diffuser. I first tried it with just one or two sheets wrapped around the flash (the image on the top), and then again adding a few more sheets to thicken the filter (image on the bottom).

1tissu    45tiss

So that was a little disappointing. Maybe some thicker paper will help. Same sequence followed, first just one sheet of construction paper (top) and then I folded it over to double the filter (bottom). Nope…. The colour was badly affected with this approach, but sadly not the shadows. And, like in the flash alone image, you can see  points of light spots on her neck, her owl, and the pumpkin (to name a few). Could have been the budget friendly construction paper I was using, but still.

1constr 2constr

Next up was the cardboard and paper. Several bloggers suggested using a business card or similar white card stock style thing to sit in front of your flash but not cover it so it could bounce off the card. I didn’t happen to have any business cards lying around, plus there was no way for the card to sit on its own in front of the flash on my camera body. So I took a piece of cardboard, bent it in half, and then glued a piece of white construction paper to it for reflection. It still didn’t sit completely on its own but I think was still an improvement on the business card design.

whitebounceNow we’re getting somewhere!

While the images still appear a little dark, remember that you can brighten that up in post processing. What’s important to note is the lack of awkward shadows (or reduced visibility of them), the overall smoothness or evenness of the lighting, and I mean really she just looks younger doesn’t she? Not a point of light source to be found!

Lastly, I grabbed a pie plate from the recycle (the kind that frozen pie shells come in – but if anyone asks, I made that pie from scratch….) bin and then fashioned a reflector that would sit over the flash so I didn’t have to hold it in place. This worked better in theory than practice. I still had to hold it in place- and carefully as my fingers often got in the way of the light bounce and created a dark spot on the images :S. But still I managed a few shots like this:

piebounceSo using these photos as evidence, I would argue that soft box style DIY diffusers don’t work nearly as well under artificial lighting (at night & indoors) as some people claim they do. Sure they’re easy and in a pinch yes they did reduce the overexposure of the flash to a point (the tissue paper doing it better than the construction paper), but still not enough of a change in my opinion to merit it. But again, it cost me 10 seconds of my day to fashion a little ‘flash cozy’ for my camera.

The diffuser cap styles however did work amazingly well (again, in my opinion), however I struggled with getting them to stay in position on their own without handling them through the shot. That could be very annoying if needing to hold your camera steady to avoid blur/shake, or to catch the Kodak moment without thinking. Purchasing even a temporary attachment (short of investing in an external flash) might be worth it instead of DIY in this case. Especially coming into Christmas time and party season!


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